Where the heart beats
English writer turns his attention to the terrors of war and the secrets of the past
More than two decades after Birdsong, English writer Sebastian Faulks returns to the subjects and themes that made that novel one of the most beloved in recent memory. With Where My Heart Used to Beat, Faulks turns his attention again to the terrors of war and the secrets of the past, to lost lives and star-crossed love. It’s a much broader book than Birdsong, in many ways smarter, yet, in the final reckoning, seems somehow less than the sum of its impressive parts.
Where My Heart Used to Beat spans much of the 20th century through the experiences of its main character, Robert Hedricks.
We first meet Hedricks in 1980, when he is in his 60s and fleeing New York after an encounter with a prostitute.
Awaiting him in his London flat is a letter from Alexander Pereira, a neurologist who is familiar with Hedricks’ work as a psychiatrist through his once-popular book The Chosen Few, and who served with Hedricks’ father in the First World War.
Pereira has an offer for Hedricks: visit him at his island home and consider becoming his literary executor, and Pereira will tell him of the father who died before Hedricks knew him.
It’s a clunky premise to get the two aging men into the same room to facilitate recollections and flashbacks, but Hedricks’ sojourn on the island, with its crusty natives and a sylph-like young woman inclined to dive nude for sea urchins, is charming enough to merit a return.
Through conversations that feel like therapy sessions, and his own solitary remembrances, we follow Hedricks from his rural boyhood, through his almost accidental education, his experiences in the Second World War (including, of course, the great lost love of his life) and his experiences as a revolutionary psychiatrist through the 1950s and ’60s.
Faulks writes compellingly, but the book ultimately feels like short measure.
Perhaps it is due to Hedricks’ rational nature, or the detached narrative tone, but the novel fails to emotionally connect, even considering the heightened quality and native force of some of the developments and revelations late in the book.
In the ongoing battle between head and heart, this round goes to the head. Robert Wiersema’s latest book is Black Feathers.